Even with virus, 'we can operate safe civilian aviation'

Airport chief warns Israeli aviation is ‘days away from point of no return’

Ben Gurion CEO Shmuel Zakay calls to renew flights, says months-long stagnation under pandemic endangers tens of thousands of jobs, could cause 'huge strategic damage'

The empty arrival hall at the Ben Gurion airport on June 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The CEO of Israel’s main airport warned Friday that the country was “days away from reaching the point of no return” for its aviation industry, after long months of an almost complete lack of flights due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Shmuel Zakay said in a Facebook post that after so much time without activity, many professionals, from pilots to ground crews, had had their operational competency eroded. “Bringing them back to efficient and safe flights will take months,” he said.

In Israel, where most travel in and out of the country is through the air, long-term damage to the aviation industry would cause “huge strategic harm,” he added.

While acknowledging that the coronavirus is “a dangerous and lethal pandemic,” Zakay said it was imperative to learn to live with its presence and manage its risks, as it did not seem to be going away anytime soon.

Shmuel Zakay (Ynet screenshot)

He accused the government of “stagnation” in its response to the disease, calling its handling of the crisis “the opposite of leadership.”

“This week civilian flights resumed in the world even in countries whose illness levels are high,” he stated. “We can operate safe civilian aviation even under the shadow of coronavirus.”

Zakay argued he was not urging a return to flights so Israelis could “go on vacation,” but rather he was trying to prevent “fatal harm to an industry comprised of tens of thousands of people, hundreds of professions.”

El Al Airlines’ Boeing 737s are pictured on the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, March 10, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Israel’s national carrier, El Al, has entered deep financial trouble due to the pandemic. On Thursday it furloughed 500 more staff, including 100 pilots, amidst a labor dispute.

Tensions at the airline have been high after it slashed the vast majority of its workforce and dipped into pension funds to stay afloat amid the coronavirus crisis. The airline is seeking a government bailout to save it from insolvency and collapse.

On Wednesday, the airline stopped flights altogether after labor talks blew up between the pilots committee and management.

Prior to the latest round of furloughs, it had put 80 percent of its 6,303 workers on unpaid leave, cut management salaries by 20%, halted investments, and signed accords for the sale and lease-back of three Boeing 737-800s.

Hundreds of food service workers at El Al subsidiary Tamam, which produces Kosher airline meals for multiple carriers operating through Ben Gurion International Airport, have also been furloughed, sparking concerns regarding the possibility of mass layoffs.

According to the Ynet news site, Wednesday’s flights were canceled after negotiations between pilots committee representative Nir Reuveni and airline CEO Gonen Usishkin ended without resolution on Tuesday evening.

The pilots then refused to staff Wednesday’s flights, with the airline’s management reportedly responding that if they would not fly, they would be transferred to other active positions in the company, with many of them needing to be furloughed as a result.

The airline has prolonged the suspension of scheduled commercial flights until the end of July, but had said it would continue to use its aircraft for cargo and occasional passenger flights.

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